1. Holly Holm
Nothing spells “breakthrough” quite like a historic head kick, and the shockwaves Holly Holm’s shin sent through the sport are still being felt.
Holm made her Ultimate Fighting Championship debut on Feb. 28 and nine months later was seated on the women’s bantamweight throne. It was a whirlwind ride for the multiple-time boxing champion who transitioned to MMA in 2011 and won her first nine bouts before arriving in the UFC 193 main event opposite Ronda Rousey as the No. 1 contender at 135 pounds.
Few gave Holm a chance to unseat the seemingly invincible Rousey -- the Olympic judoka had beaten he three previous opponents in 64 seconds combined -- at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, as evidenced by the fact that she was a +700 underdog with some sportsbooks. It quickly became apparent that the odds needed an adjustment.
Holm -- the Sherdog.com “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” for 2015 -- knocked out Rousey with a second-round head kick and follow up punches to claim the women’s bantamweight championship. The shocking conclusion came 59 seconds into round two, with Rousey flat on the mat. During the months, weeks and days leading into the battle, many pundits questioned whether or not Holm was up to the challenge.
“This fight was a lot for me mentally,” Holm said at the post-fight press conference. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I cried in the gym leading up to this fight. It’s a lot to take in. Those kind of fights are the ones that a loss is that devastating but a win is that sweet of a victory. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but I just really like to take the chance, believe in myself and give myself a chance.
“It’s hard to put yourself out there sometimes,” she added. “I know a lot of people thought it was early. I didn’t expect the phone call to come this early. If you don’t take the opportunities that are in front of you, how can you really expect to get anywhere? As soon as it came, I said, ‘This is great. Let’s do it.’”
Holm set the tone from the start. She circled away from the champion throughout the first round, countering with accuracy and power. Holm leaned on a sniping left cross but also mixed in a beautiful stepping standing elbow and a surprising takedown. Rousey returned to her corner after the first five minutes with a bloody lip and reddening around the nose and mouth, a look of bewilderment across her face. Early in the second round, Holm clipped the judoka with another straight left. Rousey briefly turned her back and let down her guard. A kick to the neck came next and put Rousey on the canvas in a semi-conscious state. Holm pounced with punches and hammerfists, prompting referee Herb Dean to act on the fallen champion’s behalf.
“I visualized if a head kick was there to go for it. We didn’t want to go out of our way searching for it. I didn’t want to force it,” Holm said. “She can come straight forward with your leg in the air and you can be off-balance, so there’s times to use them and times to not. If it was there I wanted to take it, and it was there.”
Lost in the chaos surrounding the knockout was the fact that Holm had weathered exchanges in Rousey’s wheelhouse, on the feet and on the ground.
“That wasn’t the only thing in the fight,” she said. “She was kind of going for an armbar, [and] we were in the clinch on the cage at one point. We were in the clinch in the middle of the cage. There were a lot of things going through my mind, and I wanted to make sure I was focused every minute of the fight. That’s one of the things I would think about. I also visualized myself being in other situations in the fight because I didn’t want to get in there and it be brand new.”
“I don’t think you can prepare yourself if you’re not aware of what can happen. She’s been the most dominant athlete,” Holm added. “There were days I got to the gym, didn’t perform well, sat in my car upset, cried and thought, ‘You know what? If I perform like that, that’s not going to get me a win, so I’ve got to come back tonight and perfect those things I need to get better.’ There’s moments in your mind that you doubt yourself. You can have a good night; you can have a bad night. There’s days in training where everything flows, and there’s days when they don’t. You just pray that doesn’t happen the night of the fight.”
The upset against Rousey dwarfed Holm’s other two victories -- a split decision over Raquel Pennington in her UFC 184 debut and a unanimous verdict over Marion Reneau at a UFC Fight Night event on July 15.
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